As I’ve spoken to other thru-hikers along the Appalachian Trail I’ve noticed a consistent theme regarding ethics – “it’s all the same” – so they claim. This claim is that the ethics of Christianity is sufficiently similar to any other ethics and thus it doesn’t really matter which you chose.
There are three individuals that quickly come to mind on this topic. One is a Hindu from a Catholic background, the second a mystic from a Unitarian background, and the third a Buddhist or perhaps post-Buddhist if such a term is acceptable. The Hindu (likely the most impressive intellectually of the three – having studied philosophy in college) held the view that the code of morality in Hinduism basically matched the Ten Commandments and other laws of the Bible. The mystic (who was hopelessly confused) thought everyones experiences led to belief in the same set of ethics if we are just “true to ourselves.” When I asked her if Hitler was true to himself in carrying out the actions (the Holocaust) he earlier wrote that he wanted to do (in Mein Kampf) she got quite angry; perhaps realizing the standard she wanted was her own personal view of ethics, not a uniform view held by all of mankind. (I should really apologize for using a “reductio ad Hiterlum” in an argument but sometimes it seems necessary to get through to someone.) The post-Buddhist said “its as if there are a million hands pointing to the moon, all you have to do is follow one of them.”
To all of these people I quickly concede that the laws in Christianity (the teachings of the Bible) do in many places precisely correspond with the laws of other philosophies. The law “thou shall not kill” is nearly universal, even if it is rejected in some philosophies. (perhaps utilitarianism or in Japanese fuedalism for example). In fact, it may well be possible that another religion/philosophy completely encompasses the laws of Christianity. Even so, there are fundamental differences. To understand these differences we must go to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
From Matthew chapter 5:
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Jesus raises the bar of ethics. He says we are guilty for any minor deviation of the law, not just full outright disregard of it. It is because God is perfect and that any minor infraction on our part separates us from him that we are stained in sin. We are guilty because of sin and it is to God, who is the standard of goodness, that we are guilty.
An understanding of ethics (a code of right conduct) requires a prior knowledge of what “right” or “good” is. In the Bible we know that it is God himself who is that standard of goodness.
Those listening to Jesus asked a most pertinent question. “Then who can be saved.” If we are all guilty for minor deviations then who can be saved. Jesus’ answer: “With man it is impossible, but with God everything is possible.”
Thus, Christian ethics (after realizing 1. the nature of goodness is God himself and 2. that we are all guilty) must move on to the third step – that salvation comes not by our own actions (as the resurrection in Jewish law, reincarnation in Hinduism, enlightenment in Buddhism) but as the gift of God. Salvation comes not by our own actions but by the grace of God.
Each of these can be difficult to accept, but perhaps the salvation of God, outside of our own actions, is the most difficult.
We see a theme repeated in the teachings of Christ that it is the “low” who will be saved and the “high” damned. The low are those who realize their own sinfulness and rely on God for their salvation. The high are those who think they already “good people” and have not need for a savior. Considering just these instances from the Gospel of Luke:
A. He hath annointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.
B. They that are whole need not a physician but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinner to repentance.
C. Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.
D. For he that is least among you all, the same shall be great.
E. For whoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
F. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not recieve the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.
G. For the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.
Thus, there is a massive difference between Christian ethics and all of the others. Christianity has you to not rely on yourself. In fact, relying on yourself is a bad thing. We should look to God for our salvation. We are to have humility.